#3 Christmas with Nick & Nora in The Thin Man (’34)
Eleven years before ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ defined Christmas tradition, Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) presented a more tantalising yuletide tableau vivant. In the Charles holiday economy, a tree doesn’t hold centre stage as a solemn totem worthy of veneration. Nora gripes about having to trim it and leaves the chore until the last minute. Asta lifts his leg on the indoor commode. On Christmas morning, sparsely festooned with bulbs, balloons and spray of tinsel, the woodland seasonal merits zero sentiment from the contented spouses. Nick uses the tree for target practice, firing round after round from a toy shotgun, a gift from the missus. Muffled in fresh fur, Nora offers a portrait in forbearance as she observes the sharpshooter’s antics, even as he aims backward with a mirror guide and knocks a hole in the window. Nick and Nora give us hedonist playtime, which involves loot ranging from cheap diversion to opulent prize, such as Nick’s miniature firearm and Nora’s new watch and luxe coat. The couple exhibit little interest in tradition or even practicality with the trinkets. Shattered glass in December introduces an unwanted element of air conditioning in the room; meanwhile, Nora’s full-length pelt array for loungewear veers toward extreme.
Nick: Say, aren’t you hot in that?
Nora: Yes, I’m stifling. But it’s so pretty.
Christmas morning grants a reprieve from polite manners; for the day that’s in it, one can indulge and act a bit greedy with the gift-wrapped. Moreover, tradition often spoils the pursuit of fun. Nick and Nora promote the benefits of clowning around for adults. In a film full of sourpusses and worrywarts, they find respite in playtime, throughout the scene and as it closes, when they link arms and skip off to change clothes in order to resume work on the case.
We locate another highlight during this scene in the tone of their wisecracks, which are sophisticated, not puerile; their language games mark high water in a gag pool that includes deft wordplay and grammatical nuance. They discuss newspaper coverage of the roughneck who broke into their hotel room and shot Nick during a struggle.
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids
His punchline hones the confusion that occurs through the misuse of ‘where’ in an adverbial clause. As an adverb, ‘where’ indicates two different places in their exchange: to the source of the reports and the physical spot of our hero’s gunshot wound. In the rule for correct usage, ‘where’ immediately follows and modifies a noun of place in an adverbial clause. Instead, Nora uses it to modify a verb and befuddles the sense of place. Nick’s retort chides Nora for moving ‘in the tabloids’ to the end of the sentence, rather than the grammatical usage, that places it after ‘I read’. His joke points out how easily syntax muddies and obscures clarity in meaning when there’s too much space between an adverb and the word it modifies. Nick also twists the word ‘tabloids’ to serve as a double entendre, one that connotes a more delicate region of the male anatomy. Elaborate wordplay underscores their egalitarian relationship. They fling verbal volleys together and in company.
In another scene, during the Christmas party they host for reporters and friends, Nora displays a close attention to the denotative slippage that’s possible in our tongue. One idea might bleed into another. Things have multiple contexts and interpretations. Nick and Nora understand and appreciate verbal nuance, which accounts for some measure of their success in the detective business.
Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?
Nora: Yes, he is.
Reporter: What case?
Nora: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him
Nora reminds the newshound that ‘case’ has more than one definition, and at the same time, she steers the reporter from being a nosey-parker and back to the cocktail party at hand. An additional example of Nora’s quick-witted wordplay occurs after the armed roughneck invades the couple’s boudoir and police arrive. Officers begin the room search in Nora’s bureau, starting with the delicates. She exclaims: What’s that man doing in my drawers?
Nick’s reaction shot to the literal and figurative collision of Nora’s utterance enjoys the full extent of the lady’s double entendre.
Sophisticates trade wordplay; as a result, the duo honour and elevate their audience.